Posted on | March 22, 2012 | 8 Comments
Dave Bryant’s interview with me appears in today’s Morning Star. You can read it online right here but I’d recommend that you also head out and buy it, it is one of the last true left wing papers in distribution and often struggles to maintain its existence. It’s a lovely piece by Dave which captures the spirit and ethos of Poetry Unplugged. However, word limits and editorial craftiness have rendered one of the final paragraphs a little problematically for me. Here’s the paragraph quoted in full:
“The kind of elitism I think does exist is in mainstream poetry – or what is called ‘mainstream poetry,’ which is written by TS Eliot Prize nominees and Poetry Review regulars, but read by very few people. Their response to the government cuts, the Occupy movement and the summer riots has been nothing, but then none of it touched them. The only vocalisation you get is from Carol Ann Duffy doing a poem about Arts Council cuts, rather than about the people who handed the cuts down to the Arts Council,” he continues disgustedly.
Now, I think a valid point is being made here but people could take the wrong impression. Firstly, I didn’t add anything “disgustedly” (this was the work of a sub editor rather than the author), that comment implies something far stronger than what I actually feel. I’m not disgusted with Carol Ann Duffy for writing a poem referencing many organisations that did not succeed in securing National Portfolio funding from ACE. If anything, Duffy’s laureateship has been the most radical in many ways. Not only should we not lose sight of her being the first woman in the post, we should also make note that she has not written any sycophantic odes to the Royal Family, instead choosing to measure the pulse of the nation with poems about the Stephen Lawrence murder and the death of Tariq Jahan during the English riots.
However I do stand by my assertion that mainstream poetry has not done anything to address the Occupy movement or the subjective, class aspects of the London Riots. We should take the laudable withdrawals of Alice Oswald and John Kinsella from the Aurum supported TS Eliot prize as handwashing, denunciatory gestures rather than overt, proactive strikes against the forces of free market capitalism. We heard more noise from mainstream poets in support of Aurum’s modest contribution to the TS Eliot Prizes administration costs. We heard more protest from mainstream poets about the non inclusion of some literary organisations for National Portfolio funding than against the coalition government that cut the public money available to the arts. Many acted as if poetry itself was under threat if the TS Eliot prize went under (no one seems to be looking at what the future of Valerie Eliot’s stipend, tied to the commercial success of the musical Cats, may be).
Mainstream poetry is mainly concerned about its own survival. This is not the same as the survival of poetry itself. Many statements about the declining health of poetry rely on the unexamined and snobbish assumption that hip hop isn’t poetry. “Mainstream Poetry” as a category is a slippery fish to handle and my offhand comments about the Poetry Review and the TS Eliot Prize don’t help. Poets I admire such as Ian Duhig and Annie Freud are TS Eliot nominees. My own best man, Nii Parkes and fellow Flipped Eye poet Malika Booker have had poems published in the Poetry Review. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. Mainstream poetry is an Islingtonian, dinner party mentality that permeates the social structures and stylisitic tropes that prop up the triad of literary prize, mainstream publisher and Guardian columnist.
Mainstream poets can enjoy relatively high profiles despite the fact that Spoken Word performers outsell them considerably with the CDs and pamphlets that they shift at gigs. Mainstream poetry is mainly white and middle/upper class, no matter how loudly it heralds the occasional exception to the rule. Poets from non white or working class backgrounds often have to ventriloquise the rhetorical aspects of the mainstream in order to gain mainstream recognition. In a recent speech to the Oxbridge bods, Tim Wells compared this practice to English actors that play characters with American accents on American films and TV shows.
Mainstream poetry eschews overt political expression, portraying poetry as something that transcends the political and connects to the timeless universality of the human condition—as all poetries that channel ruling ideologies are wont to do. Poets that dare to say something are often cattily chastised for their lack of sophistication in the hatchet-job roundups that bookend mainstream poetry quarterlies ( see Todd Swift’s review of Luke Wright’s The Vile Ascent of Lucian Gore in the Poetry Review).
I do not for a second feel that the kind of poetry that I attack in this article should be hidden away or supplanted. I wish all the best to the TS Eliot Prize, the poets that wish to be nominated and those that do not. All I really want to banish is the idea that these are representative of poetry and, by implication, the best of poetry as a whole. Then we may simply shrug at the all white shortlist, or the occasional all male shortlist such as last year’s Forward Prize—as long as those involved don’t utter the usual lines about how they honestly tried to simply choose the best collection.